The Invasive “Other”: Californian-Idahoans, Chinese-Vancouverites & Their Complicity in the Global Housing Crisis

Global housing has been a problem for years, but has recently reached a peak as housing prices and demand reach their zenith, and supply, their nadir. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, shelter, a psychological need, is a basic necessity, a foundation for livelihood. As long as city planners and zoners vest their interests in business over local citizens, urban populations balloon, and contractors struggle to meet the high demand for housing, citizens of the world will struggle to afford roofs over their heads. Boise, Idaho and Vancouver, Canada are both areas in which locals face housing serious housing shortages, which are exacerbated by several factors. Global solutions in cost-effective development must be considered if there remains any hope of correcting the housing market in Boise and beyond.

An article titled “‘Go back to California’: Wave of newcomers fuels backlash in Boise” quotes, “the vacancy rate for apartments in the price range of the county’s lowest-income residents was 0.45% as of Oct. 18, according to HousingIdaho.com” (LA Times). As the state with the seventh highest national percentage of minimum wage earners (Russell), Idaho has much room to grow in accommodating the housing needs of people with wide ranging economic circumstances. As the population of Boise and beyond continue to balloon, developments in affordable housing must be made.

The houses listed on the market are out of the picture for the majority of Idahoans due to their inflated prices. Boise is truly a sellers market because of the high demand for housing as the population increases. Local Idaho news station KTVB 7 notes, “The 2020 National Migration Study conducted by United Van Lines, the nation’s largest household mover, ranked Idaho as the top Moving Destination of 2020. Last year, more residents moved to Idaho than moved out of Idaho, with 70% of moves being inbound.” City Planning in Boise has failed to serve existing Idaho residents. Affordable housing has been a low priority, and attention is directed instead towards recreational facilities, business office spaces, hotels, and expensive homes in surrounding suburban areas. NPR speaks to this. “construction. In Boise, for example, 65 percent of homes for sale are on the upper end of the market” (Berumen and Siegler). These are likely built with the intention of attracting more out-of-staters who will come in and stimulate the local economy. KTVB states, “Many Northern and Southern California companies have moved to the Treasure Valley in the last several years which, in the long term, brings more economic opportunities to Idaho.” This may bring higher paying jobs to the area, but it also brings a higher demand for houses and higher offers from those who come over with the companies. While this influx of citizens may be attractive from a business standpoint, it has accelerated local resentments against the incoming “other”.

Idahoans insecure in regards to housing, a basic need, are quick to cast the blame for the crisis onto incoming Californians instead of the city’s response to the issue. Californians who sell their homes, pack their bags, and head for Boise Idaho are able to purchase houses upfront with cash. Coming from a place with a minimum wage of $12 per hour, thus significantly higher housing prices, Californians are able to pocket the difference and live better-off than local Idahoans who cannot afford houses. As the population of Idaho Californian transplants has grown, “The median home price in Ada County, where Boise is located, has risen 19.3% since February 2018, according to the Idaho Statesman” (La Ganga).

Instead of advocating for a suitable minimum wage or the building of affordable housing structures and a radical revision of city planning policies, Idahoans have made the issue personal. Ad hominem attacks against individual Californians are everyday occurrences, and the group is continually targeted for inconveniencing locals. While hiking on trails with a family friend, I heard her denounce Californians for widening the trails (thus unnecessarily harming wildlife areas) and for letting their dogs poop everywhere without picking it up. This woman had no idea whether it was really Californians or her own kids widening the trails or her own dog or a foreign California dog pooping up the trails. It was a hasty assumption. I have driven with people who have cursed at California drivers and generalized the group for their supposed lack of manners and social graces relative to the “courteous Idahoan.” I have also seen bumpers corrupted with invective (dissing on Californians) and been given disclaimers upon asking people where they are from to not worry because they’re “not like most Californians.” Californians have come to accept this character flaw, but should not have to take the blame for locals’ discontent.

In Vancouver, Canada, foreigners are coming in to take advantage of local offerings at the expense of local Vancouverites. Beginning in the 1950s, Vancouver reached out to wealthy mainland chinese business people, in an attempt to stimulate the local economy in exchange for Canadian passports. According to Mother Jones, “Under a new federal program, enacted partly to assist Vancouver, foreign nationals with a net worth of about 800,000 Canadian dollars ($600,000) would be fast-tracked for permanent Canadian residency if they agreed to loan half of that amount to the provincial government, interest-free, for five years.” Vancouver became a hot destination for Chinese national “business immigrants” who invested their money into real estate as a reliable business venture. This choice permanently altered the lives of locals, however, whose opportunities were limited by the newcomers, specifically in terms of housing.

Chinese nationals monopolized off the rich opportunities in Vancouver (where there was less competition and more options for business). Mother Jones speaks to the living situation of the business immigrants; “(Today, about 300,000 Canadian passport holders reside in Hong Kong.) Others kept their Vancouver homes but ‘commuted’ to China for work — a practice captured in a saying, ‘Hong Kong for making money, Canada for quality of life.’Chinese nationals got the best of both worlds, they had their cake and ate Vancouverites’ too. They got twice the opportunities as did local Vancouverites.

Even though many of these investors own property in the area, many of their residences remain empty as they continue to work in China. Mother Jones asserts that “Instead of fueling entrepreneurial prosperity, foreign capital was inflating a massive housing bubble” in Vancouver. Mother Jones goes on to describe, “Accounts of sprawling, multimillion-dollar mansions, supercar driving clubs, and free-spending Chinese trust-fund babies have filled the local papers and drawn the scorn of the international press.” NPR, on the topic, says, “Wealthy Asian immigrants and investors also started buying up businesses and property in the city. The result has been a real estate market now out of reach for many residents, something that is straining the city’s reputation for welcoming newcomers.” It also details the changes to a Vancouver neighborhood with “New condos and construction cranes loom overhead. Dozens of signs, many only in Chinese, announce future projects.” With their money and property, Chinese people have changed the fabric of Vancouver, disenfranchising locals, especially those who do not speak Chinese.

Like Boise, while housing prices rise, incomes do not follow suit. Mother Jones states, “As Chinese money poured in, housing prices quickly outpaced local incomes, which remained among the lowest of any major Canadian metro area.” NPR furthers, “Vancouver’s real estate prices are the third-highest throughout the U.S. and Canada, Yan says, after the San Francisco/Oakland/Hayward metropolitan area and Silicon Valley’s San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara area. He says those two areas claim the top spots in terms of income, but Vancouver falls well behind — it’s №50.”

“In neighborhood after neighborhood, the city’s middle-class character was giving way to something more like an upscale resort town — hardly a surprise for a place that one estimate says could be home to more than 100,000 Chinese millionaires.” One resident describes how “Her own grown children cannot afford to live in the town where they were raised. Her neighborhood continues to feel like a cross between a ghost town and a war zone. Construction noise is constant. On virtually every block, homes are still being either built or torn down.” Like Boise’s fabric being altered by an influx of wealthy Californians, Vancouver natives have been backed into competing with Chinese millionaires for their livelihoods and beloved city.

Mother Jones outlines a larger trend about globalization when it offers, “But if current trends continue, over the next decade the 1 percenters of emerging economies will continue to move trillions of dollars overseas.” People are moving to new countries, or simply investing money into foreign real estate because of low interest rates and various other perks (like the allure of citizenship and undervalued real estate). Our economy is becoming rapidly globalized, with finances flowing into foreign streams. As for the US, “Home construction per household is now at its lowest levels in nearly six decades, according to researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. This isn’t just a problem in San Francisco or New York, where home prices and rents have gone sky-high. It is also a problem in midsize, fast-growing cities farther inland, like Des Moines, Iowa; Durham, N.C.; and Boise, Idaho” (Berumen and Siegler). People moving into these fast-growing cities contribute to housing insecurity among locals who tend to be less financially well off. Growth of certain regions is inevitable, but we must ensure that the less powerful are protected at all costs.

Growth does not have to bring along resentment of and jealousy towards the exotic “other”. The basic right of shelter should not inspire competition and lead to blaming individuals for taking anything away from another. Instead of spreading hatred and xenophobia, we must insert ourselves into the political process by exerting our inalienable rights as citizens to enact change at a higher level. We can do this by amending city planning/ zoning regulations to accommodate everyone by supplying affordable housing (instead of novelties to attract wealthy others).

For Chinese investing in property and Californians moving to Idaho, new areas provide better opportunities than they would have at home. However, these opportunities come at a cost to locals trying to meet their basic need of shelter. Whether it be using their advantaged economic standing over less fortunate to buy a first house or second/third or profiting to the expense of others, there is a wide divide between those with and those without. Chinese business immigrants buy houses in Vancouver for the Canadian passport, only to leave them empty so they may make more money.

These differences facilitate hostility and delineates the haves from the have-nots. Individuals are pitted against each other, when they really should be directing their attention towards the institutions which have put them in such a position. They are distracted by interpersonal grievances from greater societal issues. Greater structural change can only occur once citizens recognize that the real culprit is not growth, but instead public policy.

NPR describes, “In Boise, an analysis by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed there is a demand for more than 10 times the number of homes being built right now” (Berumen and Siegler). In 2018, former Boise Mayor Dave Bieter passed the initiative “Grow Our Housing” in an attempt to increase Boise’s affordable housing supply, yet the housing bubble has inflated as shortages persist (Carmel). Projects like the Roe Street Townhomes, a lot with 154 (more) affordable housing units, are examples of attempts and failures at mitigating the crisis. Although these were built with the intention of leveling the market between buyers and sellers, they have sat on the market, unavailable for purchase, waiting for the developer Corey Barton of CBH Homes to maximize his profit (Carmel). Barton was granted a one-year extension on the project by Boise’s city council, despite over half of the units already having been completed. President Richard Llewellyn of the North West Neighborhood Association asserts, “We get lots of developments rushed through, in part with the justification of trying to provide more affordable housing, and if developers are holding their product after it’s already built then it certainly doesn’t do a whole lot to meet that demand at the price people are willing to pay or can pay. It doesn’t work to stabilize prices.”(Carmel). Evidently the city’s supposed “efforts” continue to be unsuccessful in rectifying the housing predicament.

Chubbuck, Idaho City Council has taken steps to address the issue. As of March 17, 2020, a plan was approved which offered “financial relief to local builders” who are burdened with the task of providing housing (O’Connell). Across Idaho, “Builders can’t finish homes fast enough to keep up with demand” (Berumen and Siegler). Chubbuck has increased the density allowed for neighborhood planning, and emphasized creative community zoning. Chubbuck mayor Kevin England notes, “We have folks who have a tendency to fight density. You’re going to kill your city if you’re not willing to have that kind of growth” (O’Connell). Once Idaho communities face the fact that more homes in greater density must be developed, and that population growth will not subside any time soon, progress will be made.

It is crucial that American developers look to global solutions to the housing crisis. Three options for improvement are what scholars refer to as ‘incremental housing’, ‘micro-mortgages’, ‘land sharing,’ and ‘collaborative housing.’ “ Incremental housing is the process by which people transform their habitable space through time” (Van Noorloos). Incremental housing responds to housing shortages more quickly than traditional developmental strategies, as it only partially constructs houses. This method provides habitable shelters and allows the occupant more creative and financial freedom than they would have had. Individuals are left to decide which needs they will prioritize, on their own time clock. This solution would respond to Boise’s slow response to building affordable housing by taking some burden off of builders/ construction workers/ contractors. Micro-mortgages, an option for low income home buyers, are “loans provided over five years to fund the construction and acquisition of “core” housing (a small house to which the owner can incrementally add features and rooms over time)” (Jones and Stead). This mortgage strategy has found success in the Philippines and across urban Africa and Asia with the help of affordable housing developers (Jones and Stead). Essentially, they would aid in the development of incremental housing. With their lower interest rates and longer-than-most periods, “micro-mortgages” are ideal for those who cannot commit to the generic long-haul mortgage. Micro-mortgages allow low income individuals the opportunity to socially advance by embarking into the world of investment and property ownership. Asian countries, particularly the Philippines, have “become a reference for how to implement land-sharing models and engage in public-private partnerships to develop affordable solutions’’ (Van Noorloos). In Hong Kong specifically, “almost half of the population reside in the public housing sector” (Lau). Of these citizens, many practice ‘collaborative housing’ involving communal living and a sharing of goods between families. This maximizes the functionality of land, a crucial resource as it is finite. I suggest that Idaho consider the aforementioned strategies to balance the market between that of a buyer’s and a seller’s. These models will reduce community tensions, promote individual well being, and unburden builders as the psychological need of shelter is met and anxieties are assuaged.

As society becomes more and more stratified, global homelessness rises, and the wealth gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99% grows into a chasm, affordable housing is merely the base level of a hierarchy of needs. Climate change rapidly increases, making weather more extreme, and shelter more necessary than ever. Homeless people in Portland, Boise, and across the world are dying of hypothermia in the streets during winter. They die of dehydration and heatstroke in the summer months. People are displaced by natural disasters- islanders from tsunamis, hurricanes, and flooding, desert dwellers from drought-related famine. Across the global south, people are in dire need of protection against the elements and the wealthy who continually sleight them for personal profit. While it becomes increasingly common for individuals to monopolize property and land, the alternative has never been so severe. As humans of the global north, we have brought the present moment into fruition, and it is our responsibility to deal with the consequences. We can complain about growth all we want, and yearn for the “good old days” when everyone stayed in their ‘rightful’ places, but we will inevitably have to accept that we have brought this onto ourselves. Through war, capitalism, neoliberalism, colonialism, exploitation, depletion of earth’s resources, we have left the global “other” no other choice but to come into our communities and prompt us to radically rethink what it means to be a citizen of an increasingly globalized world.

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